Shwedagon Pagoda: History, Architecture & Temple

Instructor: David Juliao

David has a bachelor's degree in architecture, has done research in architecture, arts and design and has worked in the field for several years.

In this lesson, you will learn about a beautiful and important monument of Buddhism: the Shwedagon Pagoda. Explore the history of this temple, its characteristics and the art in it, as well as its relevance as a Buddhist monument.

What Is the Shwedagon Pagoda?

The Shwedagon Pagoda is a Buddhist temple in Yangon, Myanmar, in Southeast Asia. It is considered one of the oldest pagodas in the world. This temple is an important Buddhist monument, with a long history that is surrounded by legends.

A pagoda is a type of temple, usually consisting of a tower with multiple levels. Shwedagon is actually a stupa, which is a sacred Buddhist structure in the shape of a bell, often with a relic inside it.

The Shwedagon Pagoda
The Shwedagon Pagoda

History of the Shwedagon Pagoda

According to archaeologists and scholars, the Shwedagon Pagoda was built by the Mon people, an ethnic group from Myanmar. Construction is believed to have started in the 6th century. The initial structure was much lower than the current one.

The stupa felt into decay for many years until the 14th century, when the Burmese King, Binnya U, decided to rebuild the temple, increasing its height to about 60 feet. Then during the 15th century, Queen Binnya Thau made significant renovations. She raised the temple height to about 130 feet, created terraces on the hill on which the pagoda is located and paved the upmost terrace with stones. By the 16th century, the Shwedagon Pagoda was already an important Buddhist monument for pilgrimage in Burma.

In the late 18th century, after various earthquakes had damaged the structure, King Hsinbyushin ordered it to be repaired and expanded to its current height of almost 330 feet. Finally, when Burma was annexed to the British Empire, King Mindon Min added a crown umbrella (an ornament typically placed atop Burmese Pagodas).

The Legend of the Shwedagon Pagoda

There is a legend behind the origins of the pagoda. It says that Taphussa and Bhallika were two brothers who met Buddha and were given eight of his hairs. The brothers found a place where three other relics from previous Buddha were stored. There, they decided to store the hairs in a golden casket. That place became the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Architecture of the Shwedagon Pagoda

As we've seen, this shrine has undergone several modifications throughout the years. Since the 15th century, the temple complex has grown with the addition of secondary structures, shrines and other monuments.

Shwedagon Pagoda at night
Shwedagon Pagoda at night

Nowadays, the compound consists of the main stupa and:

  • Four gateways, each one guarded by statues of the mythological guardian lions known as Chinthes. They all have decorated walls, depicting tales of the previous incarnations of Buddha. In recent years, three of them have been installed escalators or elevators.
  • Four smaller stupas, each oriented towards a different cardinal point.
  • Eight small shrines, located on each of the eight corners of the main stupa. A different image of Buddha is seen on each one, representing the seven days of the week. The Wednesday is split into two, one for the morning and one for the evening.

Gateway of the Shwedagon Pagoda
Gateway of the Shwedagon Pagoda

The main building, the large golden Stupa, was built on top of a hill and is composed of several parts and levels rising from its octagonal base. This base serves as a pedestal to the actual pagoda and is a brick structure surrounded by many small pagodas.

Small Pagodas Around the Base
Small Pagodas Around the Base

The lowest part of the actual pagoda is formed by three octagonal terraces that can only be visited by monks. From the terraces up to the top, all the elements are golden. Then comes the bell-shaped dome, ornamented with horizontal bands.

Terraces of the Shwedagon Pagoda
Terraces of the Shwedagon Pagoda

The upper part is the pointed structure, known as a spire. It consists of seven concentric rings on the lower part, the middle part in the shape of lotus petals, the upper part in the form of a teardrop, and the umbrella, which crowns the whole structure.

The crown umbrella on top is an invaluable piece with thousands of precious stones. Abundant rubies, sapphires and diamonds are part of its decoration. A 76-carat diamond placed on the uppermost part is one of the biggest precious stones there. Hundreds of golden bells are also attached to the umbrella.

The Crown Umbrella
The Crown Umbrella

The main stupa is decorated with precious materials. The golden exterior is actually made of many gold plates, covering the brick structure. Both the lower and the upper part are covered in gold. Most of the gold has come from donations.

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